“Seeing the baby clothes left behind really gave me chills. I had to stop for a second and take a deep breath.”
That’s how one student described the emotions of visiting the formerAuschwitz concentration camp in Poland Mar. 1. The trip, part of Anglo-American University’s semester for US students in the Cultural Experiences Abroad organization, brought 142 students to what was the largest network of concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany.
Students’ reactions vary but are all were deeply touched. Many shed tears and portrayed pure shock as they walked through the exhibitions. Visitors can see through glass windows vast piles of hair shaven from heads in order to create cloth, thousands of shoes, hundreds of suitcases with last names and stamps printed on them, mountains of eyeglasses and baby clothing left behind.
“It helps them to realize that what happened is not that long time ago and that it still lives in the people nowadays,” said Radka Houskova, CEA student services coordinator.
This wasn’t the first time CEA transported students to visit concentration camps in Krakow. Past trips lasted two days, crammed with tours to Holocaust sites and city activities. But this year’s journey was extended as students spent a long weekend exploring the city, visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau and experiencing authentic Polish cuisine and culture.
“We decided to add some activities,” said Houskova, “and we also wanted to balance the time spent on the bus against the time spent actually in Krakow a bit more.”
This was the first time CEA excused students from classes because organizers thought it was imperative to give them five days of experience. A local travel provider helped get the students to several key places.
After around eight hours stuffed in a tiny bus seat, legs curled, and out of movies to watch, exhausted students slowly stepped onto Polish ground. At Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a two-hour guided audio tour led groups of students through a museum, exhibitions and multiple buildings.
Began in 1947, the on-site tours see over one million visitors annually as they pass through the iron entrance gates crowned with the infamous motto “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning “work makes you free.” Adolf Hitler used this expression to distinguish between the strong who stayed alive and the weak who were killed.
The gloomy grey skies and frigid air captured the depressed atmosphere of the camp. Students saw holding cells, prisoner barracks, the unloading platform and the ruins of the gas chambers. Rows of brick buildings lined the camp: each served a different purpose during the Holocaust.
The guide explained that one was an infirmary to differentiate between the healthy and the sick who were sent to death. The holding cells were meant for punishment as Nazis forced four people to stand inside for hours, sometimes overnight.
Students gasped because cells were not even big enough for one person. Pallet beds squished nine bodies and were lined with hay. The barracks stacked them from the ground all the way to the ceiling. Prisoners utilized each other for body heat during the freezing winters but sweated profusely in the scorching summer. The gas chambers were not the only way of murdering people.
Many died from harsh living conditions, brutal punishments, starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions and medical experiments. The number who died at Auschwitz has been calculated by many throughout the years but the figures keep changing. In total, it’s estimated that 1.3 million victims died at Auschwitz including 960,000 Jews, 70,000-75,000 Poles, nearly all of the 23,000 Roma (Gypsies) sent to the camp and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.
The guide explained that “concentration camp” meant “death camp.” The students listening showed no reaction. Silence spread across the group. Hearing the details of life here while standing amid surviving structures, there was a clear, meaningful impact on every single visitor.
A quote was framed and enlarged in one of the buildings. “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again,” by George Santayana. The guide stopped the tour and let this resonate with visitors for a few seconds in silence.
Then he opened his mouth to instill the most important lesson he felt visitors should take away: “I am old, you are young. It is your responsibility to remember this history.”
For Jewish students, the trip had special meaning. “We have lots of CEA students for whom the visit is very painful since their grandparents survived the camp and seeing the places where their beloved suffered that much is really tough,” said Houskova.
“Being in the very place where these things happened doesn’t even compare to any video or lecture that I’ve listened to in the past,” said finance major student Casey Rosen. “Standing on the same grounds felt surreal.”
Rosen, 21, attended Hebrew school, where she learned about the Holocaust, until she became a Bat-Mitzvah when she was 13.
Erica Moser, a tourism management AAU student explained, “Before the camps I was nervous because I had heard that this could be a very emotional trip. But afterwards, I didn’t feel as drained. I had taken away a really good experience by doing my part as a Jew to learn and understand more about what went on in Auschwitz by physically being there.”
Many non-Jews were shocked after their visit at Auschwitz as well. “I’ve obviously learned about the Holocaust in school but being there gave me a whole new perspective,” Brianna Katzman said. “It was a completely important place to visit and I’m really glad I went. If anyone has the opportunity to go, I would advise them to take it.”
No matter what their religious beliefs, Auschwitz truly impacted all students.
On Saturday, CEA set up a Krakow city tour exploring all of its main sites and town square with traditional shops and restaurants. Students met and chilled over beer after the emotion-packed visit to the camps.
A walking tour of the former Jewish ghetto, also known as the Schindler’s list tour, followed the next day. Students piled on the Prague-bound bus by midnight.
Students expressed their gratitude to the staff on the bus ride home for the chance to physically see where millions lost their lives.